Day of thrills and spills for Rory McIlroy
Garcia and Leishman set the pace as McIlroy struggles on greens
RORY McILROY thrilled the vast Masters galleries with several strokes of genius, though the Holywood hero also drew too many groans with unforced errors as he shot 72 on one of those rare days when Augusta National was there for the taking.
McIlroy drove his ball straight and true with that crimson Nike Covert driver, but occasionally got himself into trouble from mid-fairway, while he missed too many putts (six of eight inside eight feet) to have any chance of challenging the leaders.
One suspects a red-hot Rory, who dominated world golf in the second half of 2012, would have carved-up Augusta yesterday ... maybe even matching his best round at the Masters (a first round 65 in 2011 as he took command of the tournament for 54 holes).
"I played well on the front nine, but just let a couple of shots go on the way in," said a frustrated McIlroy afterwards, although he remained positive about his chances of getting back into contention with an early start today (3.34 Irish time).
McIlroy trailed Sergio Garcia of Spain and Australia's Mark Leishman by six after impressive 66's left the leading duo one ahead of Dustin Johnson and two clear of Fred Couples (53), who once again appeared ageless at Augusta as he posted a 68.
Couples donned the Green Jacket way back in '92, but has secured three top-15 finishes since turning 50, including a share of sixth in 2010.
He was tied fourth last night with a handful of others, including England's David Lynn, Gonzalo Fernandez Castano of Spain, Americans Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar and South African former champion Trevor Immelman.
However, there's a strong case to be made for Tianlang Guan's 73 as round of the day. At 14, the Chinese Asia-Pacific Champion is the youngest player ever to compete at the Masters and be brought his exemplary opening effort to a classy conclusion by chipping-in for birdie at 18.
McIlroy made two imperious birdies in his opening six holes, but then took bogey at seven after a phenomenal drive into the heart of the narrow fairway there. First he misdirected his approach into a greenside bunker and then missed a modest putt for par.
"I played really well on the front nine, but made one mistake at seven, missing the green with a wedge," said McIlroy.
A birdie at nine was followed by two bogeys at 10 and 12, both of which can be attributed to his putter, including a three-putt from inside 20 feet at the latter, stirring memories of his calamitous four-putt there in 2011.
And so it went on, great birdies followed by slipshod bogeys ... yet McIlroy is still close enough to top form to launch a charge if he manages to sort out what he described as a problem hitting his putts with enough pace to get them to the hole.
Tiger Woods was similarly afflicted during his opening 70.
His Midas touch on the green had been a highlight for Woods as he surged to three victories in five PGA Tour events this season and past McIlroy to the top of the world rankings, but he also struggled to find the pace of the Augusta greens.
Still, it's worth remembering that four-times Augusta winner Woods has broken 70 only once in 20 appearances in the first round at the Masters.
Tiger was upbeat about his prospects of bridging an eight-year gap back to his most recent Masters victory in 2005.
"It was a good day, a solid day. I thought the greens were a little bit tough in the sense that they just didn't have the usual sheen, they didn't have the roll-out on a couple of putts. We were talking about it in our group. They just weren't that fast."
Sadly, there was precious little joy for Ireland's early starters. Graeme McDowell was purring along quite nicely at one-under through 11 when he took four to get down from just over the back of the infamous par three 12th.
Though McDowell recovered with birdies at 13 and 15, a brace of finishing bogeys after missing the green at 17 and 18 left the Portrush man with a frustrating 73.
"I played some solid golf to be honest, apart from 12, which was just sloppy," he sighed. "I didn't have a lot of green to work with. It was quite a fast pitch shot, so I decided to try to nudge it through the fringe with the putter.
"I've been practicing that shot, but the fringes are very slow to putt through and it came up short. I then had a woeful second putt, but such is life.
As for those late slip-ups, he explained: "Seventeen was playing difficult. I tried to force a 5-iron in there and missed it exactly where you're not supposed to, leaving myself a tough up-and-down.
"Eighteen was disappointing. It was an easy enough trap shot there and I just came out of it a little bit. All in all, some good ball-striking today; iron play was solid and I'd a couple of nice scrambles here and there.
"Yeah, I'm disappointed to finish one-over, but we can get back out there tomorrow; get ourselves in the red and try and stay in touch going into the weekend. Certainly there's no panic button."
Padraig Harrington had precious little cause for optimism as he stumbled to a six over par 78, the worst of 14 opening rounds he's played at Augusta.
Following a solid par at the testing first hole and a decent save at the second, where the sting was taken out of the Dubliner's tee shot by an overhanging branch, Harrington drove to within 30 yards of the green at the par four third and got up-and-down for a nice birdie.
When he came out of the trees at five and chipped to 18 inches for a fighting par a five, it began to look as if Harrington's luck was in ... but any such illusions vanished at the short sixth.
He hit a decent tee shot to a treacherous pin on that little plateau on the upper right of the green, but Harrington's ball landed in the rough. He was a little heavy-handed with the chip and his ball rolled right down the slope to the front of the green, leading to a three-putt five.
With the exception of a birdie at 13, where he narrowly missed with a putt for a morale-boosting eagle, Harrington had a torrid time.
"I simply couldn't get any momentum going," he confessed, identifying his three-putt bogey at 14 as the real heart-breaker in his round. "After that birdie on 13, I really thought I might get things going with one or two more. So that was a blow."
Another three-putt, this time for a double-bogey six at 17, was followed by an untidy bogey at the last, where he and Rickie Fowler both hit their chips from opposite sides of the green at precisely the same time, bringing a dissatisfying day to a slapstick conclusion.
Fowler produced an even more impressive fightback than Mickelson by recovering from double-bogeys at one and 10 for a 68, which puts him in contention.
However, a poor score on a pet day leaves Harrington struggling to make today's cut, which, for the first time, will be made on 50 and ties.